Informed citizens are empowered to participate

1st October 2009 By: Idasa, an African Democracy Institute

Last year, information came to light that the Kenyan parliament, one of the few in Africa that has complete control over its own budget, paid its members the equivalent of about $10 000 (R74 300) a month, of which only about 20 percent was taxable.This previously unknown fact was a revelation that caused a public outcry.

Selective release and use of information is often the veil behind which governments operate without public scrutiny.

One of the mechanisms for improving the right of access to information and citizen agency could be the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.Adopted by the African Union in January 2007, the charter has been hailed as a milestone in Africa's bid to promote and develop its governance systems.States have nominally committed themselves to promoting and strengthening their governance structures through citizen participation, transparency, accountability, rule of law, gender equality, decentralisation, human development, eradication of poverty and credible elections.

The charter is unique in that it was formulated and negotiated by African states and adopted by the AU. As such, the charter is a strong statement of the goals and prevailing aspirations of Africa. It is a statement in support of the principles that underpin democracy.However, two years after its adoption, only two countries have signed and ratified it. Even countries such as South Africa, which took a leading role in the formulation and adoption stages, have yet to affix their signature to the charter, let alone ratify it. Until it is ratified in 15 countries, this endeavour remains a statement of intention rather than a plan of action.

While it is important to acknowledge the progress that has been made by African countries in terms of developing democratic institutions, there remain significant challenges in improving the responsiveness of African institutions and in promoting a culture of democracy - one with an informed and engaged electorate.

A culture of democracy, as set out in the charter, speaks more to the way in which decisions are made, who makes them and why they make them. It speaks to a more systematic inclusion of citizens whose role in the democratic process is not limited to elections.

Using a simple checklist, most countries in Africa meet the outward appearance of a democratic state.All have parliaments in one form or another, judicial systems, elections, and a collection of institutions that are meant to safeguard human rights, ensure the protection of vulnerable and minority groups, combat corruption, etc. All of these are founded on constitutions that - some more than others - also guarantee the full range of basic human rights. Some have included access to information as a fundamental human right.While enacting legislation to promote access to information is taking place in several countries, Angola, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Uganda are the only countries that have done so.

But a culture of democracy should go beyond legislation and into practice. One such example is the judicial process in Ghana, where there is the formalised involvement of traditional leaders and lay magistrates in dispute resolution.These locally based mechanisms have made the judicial system more accessible to the people. Indeed, perhaps one of the more exciting ideas in democracy-building is the potential to harness traditional cultures, values and processes to enhance the culture of democracy and representative systems of governance.

It is widely acknowledged that democratic elections alone do not define a healthy democracy, nor do they guarantee that elected officials will be responsive to the needs of the people. As one member of parliament in Lesotho pointed out: "MPs want to go into politics because they are poor and hungry. And when they get into politics, they don't want to go back to their constituencies because the people there are poor and hungry."

One rather ominous omission from the charter is the lack of clarity with regard to whom government institutions should be accountable. Article 15.3 of the charter states that institutions should be "accountable to competent national organs". This essentially removes the core element of a democratic system, the citizen. That institutions are, in fact, accountable to the people should not be taken for granted, particularly where there may be several intermediaries between those institutions and the people they are intended to serve.

One attempt to bridge this gap between parliaments and citizens is the use of constituency offices. Various forms of these can be found on the continent. In many instances, however, these are linked to political parties rather than to parliament.This poses an obstacle to smaller parties, which may not have the financial means to sustain such offices in all constituencies.

In Zambia and Lesotho, the move is to link the offices directly to parliament, funded through the parliamentary budget, and to be used by the MPs representing that constituency, regardless of the party to which he or she belongs.That said, initiatives to improve engagement and access are all too rare, and the legal frameworks to promote public participation in decision-making is an area that needs further development.

Although many countries are making attempts to decentralise and promote the role of local government, this has yet to be fully realised.For instance, integrated development plans are used by South African municipalities for medium-term strategic planning and resource allocation, and are intended to be fully participatory. However, the public often lacks the information and thereby capacity to fully participate in the process of formulation.

A vital component of any healthy governance system is the right of access to information and being able to discuss this information in open and credible forums. This right enables citizens to claim other rights, like education and health. It allows them to monitor social programmes and expenditures, and enhances political discourse.

Culture being a way of life, a culture of democracy thrives among informed citizens. An informed citizenry will feel empowered not just about what the government can do for them, but also what they can do for themselves.

Coming back to the Kenyan story, in response to the public outcry over wages, the MPs decided to discuss the issue in a plenary session, behind closed doors.

Written by: Stefan Gilbert and Nancy Dubosse
Stefan Gilbert is a governance specialist in Idasa's political governance programme, and Nancy Dubosse is head of research in Idasa's economic governance programme.

This article first appeared in the Pretoria News, Monday 28th September 2009.